A July 2012 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that 17 percent of those surveyed thought President Barack Obama was a Muslim. These were mostly conservative Republicans. Assertions that Obama is a Muslim played prominently in critiques of his first campaign and during his presidency. For instance, former 2012 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reported on the cable news program "The O'Reilly Factor" in 2011 that he was investigating a possible conspiracy involving Obama's birth certificate, implying that it might reveal he was a Muslim.
Yet it was not only conservative distrust and right-wing conspiracy behind such categorizations of Obama. One of 2008 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's staffers resigned in December 2007 after sending out an email suggesting that Obama was a Muslim. Later, the Clinton campaign also sent out a photo of Obama in Somali dress (in which he wears a turban-like head covering) to the conservative blog the Drudge Report, though they claimed the distribution of the photo was not meant as a smear.
Why, beginning with the 2008 presidential campaign, were people insinuating or stating outright that Obama was a Muslim? What was at stake in this categorization? The accusation, in the context of post-9/11 America, that Obama is a Muslim is indeed meant as a "smear" by those who used the term for Obama (and the Obama camp's vehement denial of those accusations showed as much). The islamophobic use of the term as a smear implies that Muslims (including, by the accusers' calculations, Obama) are not appropriately religious (Islam being called, in popular and academic fields, not really a religion but a "civilization," a system of laws, or a political ideology, such as "Islamo-fascism") or are "extremist," to name two popular negative associations. There seems to me to be a subtle sort of social-constructive work going on with these allegations that have encouraged this popular (mis)conception, but also something revealing about the slipperiness of categories.
One can see a recoding or re-articulation of a certain value judgment in different, perhaps more acceptable terms: a "religionization" of racial difference. The accusers and spinners of conspiracy reworked their objectionable objections in other terms that would be more acceptable given the current political climate and racial politics. But it is not simply that those who oppose Obama in this way are really racist, or that they could only attack his racial difference in a coded language of religion. Something else is at work here.
This is not to say that critics who see racism in such "smears" are wrong. Surely, for at least some of those who accuse Obama of being Muslim, or of not being American, a racist recoding of difference is a key part of strategies to discredit him among certain audiences. However, such recoding was not necessary. Overt racism is clearly still alive and well—see for example, the overtly racist outpourings on Twitter after Obama's reelection, or cable personality Bill O'Reilly's more subtle "traditional America" comment. More than this, what is in evidence here, I would argue, is the way in which religion is constituted through (and helps to constitute) other social categories, such as race, class, national identity, and gender, among others. As one category shifts, so do the others. The categories of race and religion are contested and reworked in specific situations for specific ends and are mutually constituted through the social construction of selves, others, and groups. So talk about religion necessarily involves, implicitly or explicitly, the other categories that help to define it as a category within a specific context.
Through a strategic play of categorizations, certain groups construct other groups or individuals as borderline cases, which they then may push "beyond the pale," disqualifying them. Islam in the US today plays an important role in such othering discourses, used to describe what is beyond the pale: that which is not quite American, not rightly religious, not fully civilized, and not "white." The recent Islamophobic assault in Florida on Cameron Mohammed, a Catholic Trinidadian-American of South Asian descent, shows that it does not matter whether or not the target is Muslim, since Muslim has become another way of saying not American/not white.
"Little Voter Discomfort with Romney's Mormon Religion." Pew Research Center. July 26, 2012.
"Donald Trump: Obama Birth Certificate Could Say He's 'Muslim'" The Huffington Post. March 31, 2011.
"Where are America's racist anti-Obama tweets coming from?" Salon. November 9, 2012.
"Bill O'Reilly: 'White Establishment Is Now The Minority,' People Support Obama Because 'They Want Things'." Mediaite. November 6, 2012.
Feagin, Joe R. and Adia Harvey Wingfield. Yes We Can? White Racieal Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Orlando, Alex and Erin Sullivan. "Victim in Pasco hate crime had gun, decided not to use it." Tampa Bay Times. January 5, 2013.
Alexander Rocklin is a PhD candidate in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School studying the South Asian diaspora in the Caribbean. He is currently a Junior Fellow at the Martin Marty Center.